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Understanding How Pharmacies Work in Mexico

Pharmacist at work
Credit: Kadmy | Thinkstock

Understanding how pharmacies work in Mexico is important information for expats as well as travelers to this country. There are a lot of pharmacies here. In a city you may find more than one on a block, perhaps even three or four. Even in the countryside, there will typically be several pharmacies in every small town. They may even have one that is open for 24 hours, although you may have to bang on the door at four in the morning to wake the pharmacist.

Most medications, with the exception of narcotics and recently, antibiotics, are available without a prescription and you can have a taxi driver pick up medications and deliver them to you if you are too ill to go yourself.

There are basically two kinds of pharmacies, or farmacias as they are known in Mexico: those that are allowed to dispense prescribed narcotics and those that are not. By far, the overwhelming numbers are the latter group. In fact, finding a physician willing to prescribe a narcotic or a pharmacy to dispense them may be a challenge, even if required for the legitimate treatment of pain or for palliative care. Both are monitored and subject to serious penalties if a doctor or pharmacist is found to have violated the law. Mexico is not a good place to seek narcotics.

Farmacias will vary from the tiniest storefront with a little counter and one pharmacist, to Sanborns, the upscale pharmacy with departments selling everything from boxes of candy to clothing, magazines and the latest music and videos on disc.

Many pharmacies have medical consultorios situated next door where, for 25 or 30 pesos, you can have a (typically) fresh-out-of-medical-school doctor look at your throat, take your temperature, check your blood pressure and write you several prescriptions that you can have filled for a few dollars at the pharmacy. In fact, there is an industry phenomenon in Mexico—generic medications—sold by a chain of pharmacies known as Farmacias Similares. Their mascot, often found dancing to upbeat music in an over-sized costume, is “Doctor Simi,” a familiar figure who is either loved or loathed by passers-by.

In Mexico, it is common for people to consult a pharmacist when they are ill before they see a private physician, partly because pharmacists do dispense based on their own evaluation or because the patient wants a certain medicine, and partly because the pharmacist is free or the affiliated consultorio is low cost, making it affordable to people on limited incomes.

Reliance on medications is a long-standing tradition in Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived, there was already a vast body of knowledge about medicinal plants among the indigenous peoples here. The Aztecs identified and used about 400 different herbal remedies and recorded many of these in their codices, book-like written and illustrated records. This tradition continues both in the sense that many of these remedies are still used in the countryside and it is common to find people selling herbs as remedies in the local marketplaces—and in wide proliferation of the modern-day farmacia.

Of course, the dark side of this tradition is that the easy access to medications leads to self-diagnosis and self-prescribing with the erratic results you might expect. I recently visited a friend who was hospitalized by a physician after he had received “treatments” at a pharmacy-affiliated consultorio for the following infections: eye, stomach, throat, diarrhea, jock itch and what seemed to be a serious inflammation of the leg. When he finally was seen by a private physician, more dead than alive, he was immediately hospitalized where he remained for five days for a life-threatening thrombosis, followed by nearly two months of bed rest.

So, the lesson is: for anything more serious than a sneeze or a bug bite, it’s a good idea to see a physician who isn’t working for a pharmacy.

If you need assistance finding a specific medication in Mexico, especially those prescribed in the U.S. or Canada, there is more information on this subject available in my book “The English Speaker’s Guide to Medical Care in Mexico,” available on Amazon.